This is Ami. (It may not be her real name.) She arrives at our house every morning at seven. I open the door for her, she enters and empties the two laundry baskets that we have, and takes everything behind the house. There is a tiled basin, and that is where she does our laundry – shirts, pants, jeans, underwear, towels, bedding - everything. She then hangs it up to dry on a small roof above the car port. When she is done, she sweeps and mops the house. Around noon she is served lunch. And then we don’t see her again until the next day.
We did not really know anything about Ami. The young woman who worked for us previously left approximately 2 weeks ago. She was about to have her first child, and she returned to her village to give birth there and be with her family. She introduced us to Ami, who was willing to take her place. We offered to pay her around 30 dollars every month, which is about double what she had earned previously. Ami seemed content, and has arrived punctually every morning since.
One day last week she did not show up. Unable to contact her, we had no choice but to wait and see if she would show up later. Sometime around noon a woman rang the door bell. She was wearing a full veil, only her eyes were visible. When she was inside the courtyard she lowered the veil and I recognized her – Ami.
My first reaction was, I have to admit it, negative. While there are women here in Mali who cover their head, and even some who wear burqa-type coverings, they are not in the majority. And they certainly are not the type of women that frequent our house. I did not understand why Ami, who had always dressed casually, was showing up in dressed like that. (Gasp!)
Ami asked to speak to Malé, and they sat down to talk, and Ami’s story emerged …
Ami says that she is about 18 years old. She is from a Dogon village, where she was born into a Muslim family. When Ami was still a little girl, her father passed away, and, as is custom there, her father’s brother took over as head of family, and became her mother’s new husband. When Ami’s older sister entered puberty, she was given to an older man as his wife. Ami herself was still small, but she remembers her sister crying. A couple of years later her sister was dead. She may have died during child birth, or she may have been beaten to death for being ‘disobedient’ (maternal death, especially among teenage girls, and domestic violence are the leading causes of death for Malian women) – to this date Ami does not really know what happened, but she knows that her sister’s life was not good.
When Ami was around 13 years old she, too, was to become a child bride. Her father’s brother had promised her to an older man who already had three wives and was looking for a fourth. Her mother - perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – trying to save her second daughter from the same fate sent her to the nearest larger town, Douentza. The mother’s sister lives there, and Ami’s mother pleaded with the woman to help her save her daughter by hiding her. The woman agreed, and Ami stayed with her while her mother returned to the village. They never spoke or saw each other again.
Ami’s aunt tried her best to provide for Ami, the young woman and the older woman working in fields, and selling fruits and vegetables. But neither had ever been to school, and so their prospects were limited. In addition, the aunt did not feel that Ami was safe: any day somebody from Ami’s village could come happen upon her and betray her secret. They two woman scrimped and saved until one day, about 3 years ago, they had saved enough for Ami to take the bus to Bamako, where she hoped to find work and stay anonymous.
Ami easily found work in Bamako as a servant for Malian families. There she would work from before sun-up until long after sun-down, chopping wood and making cooking fires, preparing meals, hauling water, washing laundry, sweeping the court, taking care of kids, all while dodging unwanted sexual advances of the men in the household. For that she could sleep under the stairs or in the doorway, eat two or three meals a day, and earn the equivalent of about 15 USD. Often she did not get paid.
And so she survived, moving from job to job, sometimes getting fired, sometimes leaving because it became intolerable, sometimes because she sensed that she would come across other Dogon who may know her, or know her family. Until one day she showed up at our house, looking for a new job…
All went well for Ami the first two weeks or so. But then she had been noticing a man lurking around where she and a couple of other girls shared a room. She tried not to look at him too closely when she passed him, but she suspected that he was somebody from her village. Increasingly nervous, increasingly scared, she had to find out who he was. One day she borrowed a full veil, and so disguised walked past the man as many times as she dared until she felt sure. He was the youngest brother of her mother’s husband, the one who had given her away. And there was only one reason he was hanging around her street: he was looking for her. It was equally clear to Ami what he intended to do if he found her. He would take her back to her village, against her will and by force.
Ami told Malé everything. She needed a new place to stay, she no longer felt safe. Malé said that we will help her as much as we can, but that she could not stay with us permanently. He gave her some money so that she could visit some other acquaintances to see about staying with them. Ami also wanted Malé to call her aunt in Douentza, to see what she had heard. Yes, the aunt said, it was true; the youngest uncle is in Bamako looking for her. The aunt encouraged Ami to not give up, to keep hiding. She said to Maléthat Ami’s fate would be sealed if she were to be caught, and that she would suffer greatly once back in her village. She might even get killed, as punishment for her disobedience, and no one would ever be the wiser.
Eventually Ami found a place to sleep with some other women. During the day, after she has done the laundry for us, she stays in our yard, resting or just staring into space. When it is evening she dons her full veil and slips out the yard door.
You might see her walking down the street, a fully veiled woman. Or you may not notice her at all, since the veil has a way of making its wearer invisible. If you are like me, you see her and you feel sorry for her - another suppressed, disenfranchised woman. But every day that I see her now, with veil when she arrives and leaves, and without veil when she is on our property, I see a young woman who against all odds, without anybody’s support, has nourished hope that her future can be better, a woman who feels that she merits a decent life. A woman, who uses - of all things - the full veil to continue her daily, subversive activities of emancipation …